Cut and Run Summer Reading

After two weeks of intense summer heat the morning air has a little chill in it today. It’s finally possible to imagine those cool autumn dawns again. There are even a few yellow mulberry leaves on the edge of the woods. I’m not saying the heat is over, but if you look and listen, it’s obvious the planet’s tilting toward fall.
What the return of cooler weather means for me always is the end of the long 3-month period of summer projects. I’m a teacher and during the school year it’s important to finish things-grading papers, committee work, turning in final grades. Summer is the time when it’s OK to have the best intentions.

You see, I’m one of those who enjoys starting way more than I finish, so this time of year I have to take stock of what has been accomplished and what will slip in the cracks once school starts. I need to accept that some things will never get done.

Yesterday we finally put up two tiles in the living room. It required a long ladder and lots of nerve on the part of our youngest son. But that’s done. I can add it to the short summer list with “finished” at the top.

In the yard I’ve made progress building another small fish pond. One wasn’t enough, so I started a second one. Yesterday I finally positioned the rubber liner and tested the pump. What’s left is placing the stones for the waterfall and ringing the perimeter with others. If I can just finish it by next spring it will be full of iris, arrow leaf, and other cover for frogs and fish.

It’s with my summer reading I’m always overly ambitious. I’m not one of those people who completes every book they start. “Oh, you’re a cut and run reader,” one of my friends, a finisher, said the other day, chiding me with the latest hack political phrase being bandied around.

But there’s just so much to keep up with. These aren’t just beach novels I’m talking about here. I stay aware of as many “place-based” books published each year as I can. It’s my passion, surveying the ways that people articulate our relationship to the natural world.

Every summer I buy more place-based books that I can read and start many more than I can finish, so three piles of books rise like a mountain range on the edge of our coffee table. The front range consists of the four books I’ve read since school let out. The next pile is books I’ve read fragments of, and there are four of them as well. Further back are the books I haven’t picked up since they were added, and there are eight or ten in it.

It’s pile number two I’ll concentrate my attention on this morning. I had the best of intentions when I started each of these four books, but somehow I was always diverted. It’s an interesting collection of books I didn’t finish, and I thought I’d report on them this morning based on what drew me to them in the first place. Let’s call it a book review of my best intentions. Maybe admitting I didn’t “stay the course” will motivate me to work on the pile, but I doubt it.

So here are four good place-based books I didn’t finish:

BIRDING BABYLON by Jonathan Trouern-Trend-This is a soldier’s journal from Iraq. Trouern-Trend, a Connecticut National Guard Sergeant, begins his deployment in early 2004 and carries with him his life-long passion for birding. I started this one because I wanted to be reminded that no matter how deep the tragedy in Iraq there is always the “persistence of life even in a wasted land.”

THE RIVER OF DOUBT: THEODORE ROOSEVELT’S DARKEST JOURNEY by Candice Millard-This is more than a presidential biography. It’s an adventure story of the highest order and I made it through the early chapters about the end of TR’s political life. What’s still left is the trip down Brazil’s River of Doubt, Roosevelt’s last great journey. I know from the jacket copy that it’s a good story: the rapids are fierce and the former president nearly dies.

THE UNITED STATES OF APPALACHIA by Jeff Biggers-This study tries to reverse all the negative stereotypes of the Southern mountains. Biggers argues that Appalachia is a cradle for freedom and independence and home to some of America’s greatest music and literature. I actually read over half of this one and thought for a day or so I’d get to the end. I think THE OMNIVORE’S DILEMMA (one of the four books I finished this summer) arrived and took its place.

TIMOTHY; OR, NOTES OF AN ABJECT REPTILE by Verlyn Klinkenborg-OK, this one I will definitely finish before school starts. It’s a short novel, and the first person narrator is a tortoise named Timothy who is held captive by real-life early English naturalist Gilbert White. Timothy has a sharp and critical view of humans and relates it through these notes. Ever since Mr. Ed I’ve been a sucker for talking animals.

Year-round school? Let’s hope that idea never catches on.

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